Q and A’s ‘The Pearl Sister’
1. How does the fourth sister, CeCe, relate to her mythological counterpart?
Celaeno’s mythological story and personality, as CeCe points out herself, is the least well documented of all the Seven Sisters. So I took the bones of CeCe’s legend, then set her free to create her own destiny in Australia – not only the land of new possibilities, but ironically, the high temple of The Seven Sisters legends themselves, where the girls are revered in Aboriginal culture.
2. CeCe is in many ways the polar opposite to her sister Star – how did you find her voice ?
To begin with, CeCe was definitely the sister I was most nervous about writing. I was worried that readers would have a negative view of her before they came to read The Pearl Sister, as she seems controlling and abrupt. In The Shadow Sister we see the breakdown of Star and CeCe’s relationship from Star’s perspective. But as CeCe points out, there are always two sides to every story and The Pearl Sister is hers. Writing CeCe was a total revelation. She has such a unique and interesting perspective on life, She’s always calling herself a ‘dunce’, but that’s only due to her dyslexia, because CeCe is seriously bright, funny, talented and very, very real. When we meet her, she is so vulnerable and full of self-doubt and I don’t think I have ever felt as protective about a character as I feel about CeCe.
3. What drew you to write about Australia?
Just like CeCe, it was the only I had never visited before, perhaps for the same subconscious reason – like her, I too hate spiders. Yet when I arrived, I was absolutely captivated by the landscape, especially the Never Never around Alice Springs, the history and the people. In The Pearl Sister I have only written about a tiny portion of this vast and incredible continent. There is so much more to discover and I hope to visit again.
4. You have written about Thailand before (in Hothouse Flower). How did you feel about revisiting it in The Pearl Sister?
Thailand is one of my favourite places in the world, and I visit every year with my family. Our favourite place is Phranang beach and I was walking along the shore early one morning when I came up with the character of Ace and why he is hiding out. People travel to this magical peninsula to ‘find themselves’ and it also seemed apt for CeCe to begin her journey there whilst she gathers the courage to continue to Australia. I stayed on in Thailand to write the first draft of The Pearl Sister, with a one-legged mynah bird for company.
5. The historical research required for this book must have been vast. How did you approach it?
The research was like the country of Australia itself – vast! I always begin by reading everything that I can get my hands on and whilst I was in Australia, I found a number of out of print historical books, which provided the detail I needed on the Pearling industry in Broome. Sadly, Aboriginal history has largely been documented by white men, and from their subjective view rather than the Aboriginal people themselves. Their culture has always been passed down to the next generation by word of mouth. Luckily, I was able to find several online resources, such as a community website of the Yawuru people (whom I write about in Broome) which contained a dictionary of their language, information on their traditions and their Dreamtime stories.
The sinking of the Koombana was one of the greatest maritime disasters in Australia’s history. I then discovered that whenever the Koombana or Broome are mentioned in historical texts, the Roseate Pearl makes a cameo appearance. The rumours of its curse were written down in ‘Forty Fathoms Deep’, a 1937 book about pearl divers in Broome. Legend has it that the Roseate Pearl was found by a white pearling master, but stolen by a diver. Two Chinese burglars then stole the pearl and it was sold onto a man who then died of a heart attack. The next owner committed suicide when it was stolen from him, and in 1905, a pearl trader was murdered over it. All sources agree that Abraham De Vohl Davis, a former pearl diver, had purchased it for £20,000 before boarding the Koombana, and that is the last we heard about it. Unless of course, it wasn’t on the ship at all …
6. What surprised you the most when you visited Australia?
One of my main source texts for the Pleiades myths has been Munya Andrews’ ‘The Seven Sisters of the Pleiades’. Andrews herself is from the Kimberley region in Western Australia, so it was amazing to see the birthplace of these stories that have been passed down orally for thousands of years. The best surprise was that, even though I knew how important The Seven Sisters are in Aboriginal culture, I was not expecting to see them so ingrained in everyday life. Walking through Alice Springs, I saw homages to the Sisters everywhere. It felt like a homecoming for me, and like CeCe, I totally fell in love with The Never Never.
7. CeCe finds out about Aboriginal traditions and culture from Chrissie. How did it feel to address the difficult issues of racism and colonialism in Australia?
I never set out to make political or social statements – it is the characters who tell me their stories and experiences, and I simply write them down. Australia is a country of contradictions – it is still young and in the process of discovering itself, just like CeCe herself. During my research, I read a lot of historical accounts on what life was like in Australia from colonisation in 1788 to the present day, and I have also read about the 50,000 year legacy of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Camira and Alkina’s characters are based on those accounts, while aspects of Kitty’s life are drawn from the remarkable stories of the great pioneer women of the Outback, who were brought to Australia by their husbands and had to build a life in a harsh and brutal landscape. I admire each and every one of those who took their chance of a better life and boarded a boat to Australia. It takes serious courage and guts to cross to the other side of the world and walk into the unknown.
8. One of your ‘real life’ characters in The Pearl Sister is the Aboriginal painter, Albert Namatjira. What drew you to write about him and his home, Hermannsburg Mission?
I knew that Albert Namatjira was Australia’s most famous Aboriginal artist, but it was when I first saw one of his watercolours that I was intrigued. His style is completely different to the vibrant dot paintings that a lay person like me would expect of an Aboriginal painter. I found out more about his relationship with Rex Battarbee, his mentor and how his artwork confused and astounded critics who could not understand how an Aboriginal painter could paint in such a ‘Western’ way. They are truly beautiful landscapes, outwardly painted in the impressionist style that Rex Battarbee taught him, but within the trees and the mountains and skies are endless hidden forms and shapes pertaining to the spiritual side of Aboriginal culture.
I drove through the Never Never to see Hermannsburg Mission for myself. Today it is a protected historical site and managed by the local Aboriginal Elders, still true to its legacy of integration and the effort that was made by Pastor Albrecht to learn the ways of Arrernte people.
9. You have mentioned before that there is an invisible plot thread spun throughout the books. Can you give us a hint about what is hidden in The Pearl Sister? What should we look out for in future books in the series?
There are hidden clues throughout the books, and every day I receive questions and theories from my readers as to #whoispasalt and where the ‘missing’ seventh sister is. I can neither confirm nor deny any of them! The overarching plot is detailed in a file that is well hidden. Only 6 people on the planet know the ending. I had to write it down for the production team of the TV series of The Seven Sisters.
10. CeCe and Chrissie’s relationship is very tender and complex. Can you tell us more about CeCe’s journey towards discovering who she is?
When CeCe embarks on her journey to Australia, it’s the first time in her life that she’s taken off without Star. It was fascinating to write the development of her relationships with both Ace and Chrissie, who are very different people, but who each bring out something different in her. While Ace gives CeCe self-confidence and friendship, Chrissie helps CeCe find out who she is, what her roots are and what a ‘home’ truly means. Throughout the book, CeCe struggles with her identity, as we all do in our different ways at various points in our lives. CeCe is a work in progress and even by the end of The Pearl Sister, she is still uncertain about her sexuality, but at least she has begun her journey of self-realisation and re-discovered her talent, her passion for art and found the inner confidence she so lacked.
11. Can you tell us a little about the fifth book in the series, Tiggy’s story?
Tiggy is the most spiritual of the sisters – she calls herself a ‘snowflake’ and accepts that her sisters find her beliefs and often accurate prophecies strange and unsettling. Like any ‘gift’, Tiggy wonders if her second-sight is also a curse, as it seems to land her in constant trouble. In The Moon Sister, we travel up to the majestic Scottish Highlands to a wild and snowy Highland estate and a fascinating cast of locals who befriend her. Tiggy’s journey to discover her past will also take her to the heat of Granada in Spain, where the magnificent Alhambra Palace overlooks the Seven sacred caves of Sacromonte as they echo with the beat of flamenco music…